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Deitrick v. Costa

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 5, 2019

DONNA DEITRICK Plaintiff
v.
MARK A. COSTA, et al. Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION ON MOTIONS TO AMEND JUDGMENT AND ALTERNATIVELY FOR A NEW TRIAL (DOCS. 644, 646, & 648)

          WILLIAM I. ARBUCKLE U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         CONTENTS

         I. INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................... 2

         II. THE ALLEGATIONS OF ERROR .................................................................... 5

         A. The jury charge “wrongful conduct of Defendant makes damage calculation difficult.” ............................ 5

         B. Non-economic damages for humiliation and pain and suffering, where there was no evidence of physical injury or impact. . ...................................................... 8

         C. Permitting Plaintiff to testify as to the value of the contents of the safe. . ..... 16

         D. Punitive Damages not supported by underlying claims and violate the 14th Amendment. .................................. 19

         E. Use of “security tape” call to cross exam Robert Yoncuski. . ........................ 21

         F. Use of “security tape” call as only basis for liability of Vanessa Yoncuski. . 24

         G. Damages for injuries incurred at the police station. .. ..................................... 25

         III. CONCLUSION .............................................................................................. 28

         I. INTRODUCTION

         All Defendants from the trial ending with a verdict on September 25, 2019 (Doc. 602)[1] except Linda Long have filed Motions for New Trial or in the Alternative to Amend the Judgment. The Court may alter or amend a judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e), otherwise known as a motion for reconsideration. See Keifer v. Reinhart Foodservices, LLC., 563 Fed.Appx. 112, 114 (3d Cir. 2014). “A motion under Rule 59(e) is a ‘device to relitigate the original issue' decided by the district court, and used to allege legal error.” United States v. Fiorelli, 337 F.3d 282, 288 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Smith v. Evans, 853 F.2d 155, 158-159 (3d Cir. 1988)). However, a Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment “must rely on one of three major grounds: (1) an intervening change in controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence not available previously; or (3) the need to correct clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice.” North River Ins. Co. v. CIGNA Reinsurance Co., 52 F.3d 1194, 1218(3d Cir.1995). All moving Defendants rely on the third basis, the need to correct clear error or prevent manifest injustice.

         The Adams Defendants seek an amended judgment and have alleged three errors in the trial:

         A. This Honorable Court erred by giving the jury charge "wrongful conduct of Defendant makes damage calculation difficult", as the jury charge was improper and did not provide the jury with a proper understanding of the law (Doc. 644, p. 2, ¶4A);

         B. This Honorable Court erred by allowing the jury to consider awarding Plaintiff noneconomic damages for humiliation and pain and suffering, where there was no evidence of physical injury or impact, the same being contrary to precedent of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Doc. 644, p. 2, ¶4B);

         C. This Honorable Court erred by denying Defendants' Motion in Limine, and permitting Plaintiff to testify as to the value of the contents of the safe, as the same should have been barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel (Doc. 644, p. 2, ¶4C).

         In the alternative they seek a new bifurcated trial (Doc. 644, p. 3).

         Defendants Robert and Vanessa Yoncuski assert the same three grounds for error as the Adams (Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶¶a-c), and in addition add the following four allegations of error:

D) The award of Punitive Damages violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibition on excessive or arbitrary punishment (Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶d);
E) This Honorable Court erred by allowing Defendant Robert Yoncuski to be cross-examined concerning an audiotape of a security call that was never disclosed, not listed as an exhibit and the Court admitted that the Plaintiff was “sandbagging” Defendant Yoncuski (Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶e);
F) Defendant Vanessa Yoncuski is entitled to a new Trial on liability and damages as the only possible basis of liability was the aforementioned improperly admitted audio recording (Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶f); and,
G) This Honorable Court erred by submitting to the jury the issue of Plaintiff's alleged wage loss and emotional damages for alleged injuries incurred at the police station. (Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶g).

         In the alternative they also seek a new trial (Doc. 646, p.7).

         Defendant Thomas Yoncuski asserts as error:

A. The Court's denial of the Motion in Limine and admission of testimony of the Plaintiff concerning the value of her stolen jewelry on the basis of collateral estoppel (Doc. 648, p.4, ¶11) [This assertion of error mirrors argument “C” of the other Defendants];
B. The Court's charge instructing the jury that “[t]he risk of uncertainty should be thrown upon the wrongdoer instead of upon the injured” was misplaced as the general rule of placing the burden of proof of the measure of damages on the plaintiff applies to conversion cases and the charge given to the jury did not, therefore, properly apprise the jury of the applicable law (Doc. 648, p.4, ¶13)[This argument mirrors argument A of the other Defendants]; and,
C. The Court's charge for non-economic damages and preexisting condition or injury were not appropriate since recovery for noneconomic damages and psychological injuries were not connected with a physical injury (Doc. 648, p.5, ¶14). [This assertion of error mirrors argument “B” of the other Defendants].

         Like the other Defendants, Thomas Yoncuski seeks an amended judgment or new trial. All three motions have been briefed (Docs. 645, 647& 649) Plaintiff has filed a single responsive brief (Doc. 659),[2] and Thomas Yoncuski filed a timely reply brief (Doc. 660). The motions are ripe for decision. I will attempt to respond to each argument raised by the motions seriatim.

         II. THE ALLEGATIONS OF ERROR[3]

         A. THE JURY CHARGE “WRONGFUL CONDUCT OF DEFENDANT MAKES DAMAGE CALCULATION DIFFICULT.”

         Moving Defendants argue that the Court's charge to the jury on the issue of damages, mislead the jury and caused them to misapply the burden of proof. In particular Moving Defendants claim that charging the jury on the wrongful conduct of the Defendants was error. Plaintiff's theory of the case was that Defendants conspired to steal a safe from her home and convert the contents. Defendants variously argued that either they were not involved in the theft and concealment of the safe or that all the contents were returned. Plaintiff admitted that some of the contents were returned to her but claimed much of what was returned was damaged.

         The Court's challenged instructions to the jury on the issue of damages included the following language:

A defendant whose wrongful conduct has rendered difficult the ascertainment of the precise damages suffered by the plaintiff, is not entitled to complain that damages cannot be measured with the same exactness and precision as would otherwise be possible. It would be a perversion of fundamental principles of justice to deny all relief to the injured person, and thereby relieve the wrongdoer from making any amend for his acts. In such case, while the damages may not be determined by mere speculation or guess, it will be enough if the evidence shows the extent of the damages as a matter of just and reasonable inference, although the result be only approximate. The wrongdoer is not entitled to complain that damages cannot be measured with the exactness and precision that would be possible if the case, which he alone is responsible for making, were otherwise. The risk of the uncertainty should be thrown upon the wrongdoer instead of upon the injured party. The precise amount cannot be ascertained by a fixed rule but must be matter of opinion and probable estimate.

(Doc. 604, pp. 23-24)

         The source for this portion of the charge was Judge Tech. Servs., Inc. v. Clancy, 813 A.2d 879, 885-86 (Pa. Super. 2002) (internal citation omitted). The charge on wrongful conduct is a correct statement of Pennsylvania law. Importantly, that was not the only instruction on damages. The jury was also instructed, more than once, that the burden of proving her damages by a preponderance of the evidence was on the Plaintiff.[4] In addition the jury was instructed as follows:

While the measure of damages for conversion is the market value of the converted property at the time and place of conversion, such a value is often unascertainable. It is also well-settled that mere uncertainty as to the amount of damages will not bar recovery where it is clear that the damages are the result of defendant's conduct.
Please remember that damages cannot be based on mere speculation or bias. You should not award damages because you did not like a particular defendant, and you should not deny damages if you did not like the plaintiff. You must decide damages based on the evidence, not on any prejudice or bias you may have about the conduct here or the parties involved in this case. The purpose of damages involving lost or damaged property is not to make Donna Deitrick wealthy or to punish the ...

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